by Emily Dobby
Victoria-based artist Karina Kalvaitis creates a portal into a parallel universe that is both familiar, strange and strikingly compelling. She has always been intrigued by the secret door in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that leads to a mysterious world filled with magical creatures.
Karina’s labyrinthine imagination stirs her to create supernatural and surreal animals, since animals have always been a source of delight for her. She feels that she can easily tap into the feeling of this half-known, liminal space where these creatures emerge – and that feeling is endlessly inspiring to her work.
She’s also passionate about the physicality of crafting art and honed her skills at the Alberta College of Art and Design, majoring in sculpture. She pursued sculpture because it scared her – particularly the idea of learning to weld and use table saws. While at ACAD, she took courses in as many art forms as possible – from jewellery making to fibre arts. The skills she learned in those classes were invaluable, and the deep immersion in art making helped her to develop her own visual vocabulary.
She later studied theatre prop building at the Banff Centre, an education that has also informed her process – her use of epoxy clay (which is often used in prop building) in her sculptures is a nod to her experience in theatre work.
Karina is drawn to making art that communicates on a visceral level. She focuses on creating imaginary, surrealist animals with highly nuanced gestures and hyper expressive eyes and mouths. Her creatures communicate through posture and steady, direct gazes. She revealed that viewers connect with these creatures as if they were alive and had their own personalities; much like we all once built complex stories and emotional worlds around toys as children.
Vulnerability is an emotion that Karina often returns to and attempts to convey in her work, since humans love to cover their own core vulnerabilities with layers of artifice. There is a fine line between being seen as vulnerable and being deemed pathetic and Karina finds it worthwhile to explore the shades of that boundary.
The pandemic presented an opportunity to stretch her skills in an unexpected way. She watched artists making paintings and sculptures of the now ubiquitous image of the Coronavirus – a grey ball with red spikes. She then decided to make her mark through her own lens. She took the concept of the virus spikes as a jumping-off point, and the spikes eventually became the neck ruffs on the Covid Beasts. These beasts are mysterious visitors – a previously unknown life form exploring strange new lands. They also represent an important reminder of 2020 as a surreal year.
Karina’s process is intricate and meticulous; each creature takes around 40 hours to make. She begins with a rough sketch and from there, she’ll proceed to building a wire armature and adding clay toes or hooves. Next she’ll build heads out of epoxy clay and attach them to the armature. She adds a pocket of glass beads to the torso to give some weight to the sculptures. She’ll complete the process through building out the body by wrapping it in wool, needle felting on more wool and then colouring the wool. After colouring the wool, she’ll add little details such as horns and will varnish the clay parts. Her favorite part of the process is when the creatures seem to come alive as she paints the faces; the eyelids in particular.
All creatures are made in limited editions, generally 3 or 4 of each kind. Each sculpture in the group turns out a bit differently and has variations in colour, size, and expression that make them unique.
Learn more about Karina and her one of a kind sculptures at https://karinakalvaitis.com/